By Janine Warner
Digital media startups in Latin America are becoming increasingly important and credible news sources, and they are transforming the complex media landscape. With the advent of free and easy-to-use technology, entirely new types of news and information sources are emerging, from general news sites to social media influencers and email newsletters. They range from small, volunteer-fueled projects serving niche audiences, to significant news organizations reaching tens of millions through websites, podcasts, and social media.
Last week SembraMedia, a U.S. based nonprofit dedicated to increasing the diversity of voices and quality content in Spanish by helping digital media entrepreneurs become more sustainable and successful, released a comprehensive examination of the digital media environment in Latin America. The report,“Inflection Point: Impact, Threats, and Sustainability, A study of Latin American digital media entrepreneurs,” explores how independent news sources are increasingly breaking important stories and having growing impact, but also shows how vulnerable they are to violence, cyberattacks, lawsuits, and financial threats aimed at censoring them. It analyses the impact entrepreneurial journalists are having, the risks they face, and the business models that are emerging in independent digital new organizations. With support from Omidyar Network, SembraMedia commissioned a team of seven researchers who conducted 2+ hour interviews with 100 digital news startups — 25 each in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico. The extensive report is available online in Spanish, English, and Portuguese at http://data.sembramedia.org/.
Passion for independent journalism is alive and well in Latin America. As the report authors note: “One of the things that jumped out as we conducted this study was the lengths that some of these journalists are willing to go in their pursuit of the truth—even at enormous personal cost. Journalists in Latin America, particularly investigative reporters, chasing down corruption and criminal enterprises, face increasing risk. We believe that helping them to strengthen their businesses, helps them to have more independence and better resources to defend themselves. Yet while they are growing and developing these ventures, they need more support and protection from the threats.”
Recommendations from the report include:
1. Help create connections with organizations that protect and defend journalists
Entrepreneurial journalists are fiercely self-sufficient and their independence is what enables them to do reporting others won’t (or can’t) do, but it also leaves them isolated and vulnerable.
According to their research, more than 45% of entrepreneurial journalists have been subject to threats or violence because of their reporting, and many respondents said intimidation and physical threats had led to self-censorship.
Recommendation: Although there are some support organizations in place for journalists, too often entrepreneurs are unaware they exist, or these startups are so small that they are unable to meet all the requirements on their own. SembraMedia believes a matchmaking program or umbrella organization could help connect digital natives with legal, technical, and business support services, including those that protect websites from hackers and DDoS attacks, such as Project Shield, as well as pro-bono legal services, such as TrustLaw.
2. Foster sustainability with grants for business development
Only 14 of the digital natives studied reported receiving grants as one of their top sources of revenue between January 1 and December 31, 2016. In the highest revenue tier identified in SembraMedia’s study, only one site reported receiving grant funding.
Recommendation: While we would never suggest cutting back on funding for great journalism, there is also a clear need for funding that supports business development. Many of the organizations we studied report that they are “stuck” because they lack the funds to hire qualified business staff, but the lack of such valuable revenue-generating staff is also what contributes to their chronic lack of funds. To help strengthen these organizations, we recommend foundations provide grants that help entrepreneurial journalists hire, manage, and develop professional sales, accounting, and business teams, as well as dedicate resources to audience growth, product development, and business strategy.
3. Provide tools and training in business and technology
The number of digital natives in Latin America who are building sustainable businesses around quality journalism has grown dramatically since the first ventures in this study launched in 1998. At the high end, advertising is the top revenue driver, and large audiences are key to their success. In the mid ranges, diversified revenue sources, including consulting, training, and grants, make the difference when it comes to sustainability.
Broadly speaking, SembraMedia found two paths to growing revenue: building audience to drive traffic and advertising, or leveraging the loyalty of your audience to earn revenue with crowdfunding, training, events, and other sources. These paths are not mutually exclusive.
Recommendation: Provide practical business and technical training based on real-world best practices. We recommend creating a mix of online courses in business and technology designed to teach core skills quickly and flexibly. Online training should be supplemented with local and regional seminars and events, as well as mentors, consultants, and coaches.
4. Build bridges between digital media organizations and traditional media and journalism NGOs.
There are precedents in Latin America that suggest pressure from the international community can help protect journalists. International media attention also helps digital natives build credibility, strengthens their position among colleagues and peers, and validates their work and the quality of their reporting.
From syndication deals to joint marketing efforts to transnational reporting projects, partnerships with traditional media could help digital natives grow faster, make more money, and have greater impact. When stories are picked up in national and international media, they reach a wider audience and put greater pressure on governments and other organizations to be more accountable.
Recommendations: Work with organizations, such as the Inter American Press Association and the International Center for Journalists, who are already working to protect journalists, but do not always include these new digital media players. To help foster relationships, funders could sponsor travel grants for entrepreneurs to participate in traditional journalism conferences and events.
Fund the creation of a regional organization that matches startups and established media on projects of mutual interest, so they can share the cost of content creation, while also working together to build audiences (and thus revenue opportunities) for their reporting projects.
Janine Warner is an International Center for Journalists Knight Fellow and the co-founder and executive director of SembraMedia, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting Spanish-language entrepreneurial journalists. Janine launched SembraMedia in 2015 after working with thousands of journalists throughout Latin America. She has also taught online courses in entrepreneurial journalism for the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas. Warner began her career as a newspaper reporter in Northern California. She was The Miami Herald’s Director of New Media in the late 1990s.